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The Milford Track – New Zealand’s Great Walk

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The history of the Milford Track

New Zealand has some of the best tramping tracks in the world. It really does. And they are virtually all in reach of many of our major cities. The Milford Track, starting at the northern tip of Lake Te Anau and weaving through native forest, mountains, rivers and valleys to finish at Sandfly Point near Milford Sound (Piopiotahi), is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks and has held the well-deserved title of ‘the finest walk in the world’ for over 100 years.

In the early days, the track was one of the two principal trails used by Maori to link Atuwhenua (Fiordland) and Te Wai Pounamu (rest of the South Island). Starting in Lake Te Anua, Maori walked the track into Milford Sound to gather pounamu (greenstone), the journey roughly followed the lines of today’s track through the Clinton Valley, MacKinnon Pass and Arthur Valley, arriving at the foot of Milford Sound. From there a waka (canoe) was taken to Anita Bay at the head of the sound where pounamu could be found in relative abundance.

In 1888, Donald Sutherland, the first European settler in Milford began cutting a track from Milford Sound, up the Arthur Valley towards Sutherland Falls. That same year, Quintin Mackinnon, a young explorer completed the track from Lake Te Anau, heading up the Clinton Valley. The MacKinnon Pass is the highest point on the track at 1,154m.

By 1895 it was popular with tramping groups, and a collection of huts were erected along the Milford Track to accommodate the walkers– who used carrier pigeons to communicate their progress to the village at Te Anau! The first huts: Glade House, Pompolona and Quintin, although battered by fire, flood and storms have all been rebuilt and upgraded, still standing today they have become fully serviced guided walker lodges.

One of New Zealand’s Great Walks

Today, approximately 10,000 people walk the Milford Track each year, this is a mix of independent walkers who stay in Department of Conservation huts and guided walkers who stay in private lodges with an all-inclusive service. The track follows the Clinton River up into the mountain ranges, passing a sidetrack to Sutherland Falls, New Zealand’s tallest waterfall (580 metres), which tumbles out from Lake Quill. From there, the trail follows the Arthur River out past Lake Ada to Milford Sound. The sheer beauty and changing terrain is an unforgettable experience.

Getting there and away: There is no road access – the only way in and out is by boat. From Te Anau take a boat to Glade Wharf, the start of the track, then from Sandfly Point, take another boat to Milford Sound (Piopiotahi).

Distance: 53.5km; four days/three nights of moderate-difficulty magic

Accommodation: Serviced DOC huts for independent trampers, serviced lodges for guided tours. There are four day shelters. Camping is strictly not permitted. Advance bookings must be made due to popularity. October to April is the best and safest time, despite the higher cost – the weather is better, facilities are fully serviced, the bridges are there (some are removed during winter to protect them from avalanche damage) and there is less danger of floods and avalanches.

Don’t miss:

  • The MacKinnon memorial set in ancient glacier-laden mountains.
  • The 1.5 hours round trip to Sutherland Falls.
  • Tolkien-esque landscape as far as the eye can see.


Watch out for:

Weather changes – be prepared for all events, particularly if tramping during the winter season (April to October), which is only recommended for highly experienced trampers.

It’s often said you should carry a large rock with you or the sand-flies will carry you away. Bring insect repellent!

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